Overtraining is a poorly understood bogeyman for all athletes, and no one is immune. Simply defined, overtraining is a paradoxical decrease or plateau in performance despite continued training; overtraining can be confusing and frustrating. One can avoid overtraining by understanding how it starts and the possible pitfalls in your training plan that could lead to overtraining. In this article, we will discuss various methods to identify such pitfalls to save yourself from overtraining.
WHAT IS OVERTRAINING?
Overtraining is directly caused by chronic overexertion and poor recovery, but psychology, nutrition, and other health factors can contribute to shifting the balance between exertion and recovery. Some hypotheses for the mechanisms behind OTS (Overtraining Syndrome) include the glycogen hypothesis (low glycogen corresponding with fatigue), the central fatigue hypothesis (explains mood shifts), and the oxidative stress hypothesis (muscle damage via excessive oxidative stress). Unfortunately, none of these hypotheses describe all symptoms of OTS entirely. Still, other theories collectively explain the syndrome and may offer insight into how to recover from overtraining.
The basics of planning your training, strength, endurance, or various recovery strategies, below, we provide more examples of how to avoid and recover from overtraining.
To recover from overtraining, you have to rest and eat. This isn’t always easy for athletes to hear, especially when they’ve built their lives around daily training, but there is currently no other option. While there is still a lot we don’t know about overtraining, it is presently understood that things like light recovery exercises will contribute to the condition, and passive rest is the only known solution.
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SIDE EFFECTS OF OVERTRAINING
Classic side effects of overtraining include chronic fatigue, loss in performance (i.e., your maximal running pace is much lower than usual), weight loss or loss of appetite, muscle tenderness, mood shifts, and depression. You do not need to exhibit all of these symptoms to be considered overtrained. Still, it’s essential to know the signs to separate the feeling of normal fatigue after a hard workout from the sense of being overtrained.
Let’s discuss a few symptoms of overtraining.
Primary Symptoms of Overtraining
- Loss in Performance: The main indication of being overtrained, or having overtraining syndrome (OTS), is the paradoxical loss in performance despite continued training.
- Chronic Fatigue: Lingering and persistent fatigue can be another significant indicator of overtraining.
Secondary Symptoms of Overtraining
- Muscle Tenderness: Lasting muscle tenderness and pain after training sessions.
- Mood Shifts: Inexplicable changes in mood during the day.
- Loss of Appetite: Overtraining can cause a change in appetite due to disturbances in the autonomic nervous system that suppress hunger.
CAUSES OF OVERTRAINING
Overtraining is a deeply complex topic that still needs to be fully understood by the people studying it. There still needs to be a scientific consensus on the mechanisms behind overtraining or the most important biomarkers for predicting possible overtraining syndrome because, at the physiological level, the symptoms of overtraining defy logic.
During training, acute bouts of exercise (single workouts) are grouped into “blocks”, which are further grouped into phases. This structure represents the theory of periodization, which is the process of building toward a specific goal or level of fitness sustainably and progressively.
Under periodization, athletes will generally adapt well to their training because they have time to absorb training loads and see improvements in strength, endurance, and energy before their next workout. This is called progressive overload because you create enough stimulus for your body to adapt to but then allow time to recover before pushing yourself further.
Progressive overload and training efforts are generally grouped into three categories:
Functional Overreaching (FOR): The exercise stimulus is enough to develop your abilities as an athlete, but you can also recover in time for the next workout and continue to improve.
Non-Functional Overreaching (NFOR): The exercise stimulus isn’t enough to prevent you from sticking to your training schedule. However, you will not be recovered enough by the next workout to make optimal training gains.
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS): You have been training at the NFOR level chronically for weeks or months, and the accumulated fatigue has put you into overtraining.
There is a fine line between optimal performance and overtraining, as seen in the marginal difference between FOR and NFOR.
Let’s take a look at a few scenarios as examples.
Person A recently finished a 4-week heavy training block and spent the last week de-loading and taking extra time to sleep, eat, and perform recovery exercises. He did some light training during the week and rested on Friday. It is now Saturday, and he’s woken up from 8 hours of sleep feeling strong and refreshed, does person A:
A. Climb hard over the weekend, enjoying the rewards of his hard work
B. Continue light recovery training
Answer: A. At this point, person A has absorbed his previous training load, is feeling strong and healthy, and has put himself in a position to work hard, recover, and continue to improve. Light recovery training would’ve been too little stimulus to continue improving his performance. The rest would’ve pointed him towards detraining, possibly losing some of his gains from his last training block. Overall, he is functionally overreaching and cleared for training.
In contrast, we have the below scenario.
Person B recently finished a 4-week heavy training block and pushed himself in the final week. He felt tired but strong by the end of his program, so he decided to keep pushing during his recovery week. He had a few bad nights’ sleep, and by Friday, he is always feeling hungry, but his abs had never looked better. Does person B:
A. Climb hard over the weekend, despite feeling fatigued
B. Do light recovery training
C. Rest for the weekend, but stay mobile
Answer: Likely C. If person B had been pushing during his recovery week after a maintenance block, or was feeling remarkably fresh despite his training, then maybe we could choose B, but he was working hard. The fatigue he felt entering the recovery week means he must let his body catch up and finish adapting to his training. Continuing to push while recovering from heavy exercise will not make him faster, stronger, or healthier. Also, significant changes in body composition (e.g., rapid fat loss) indicate that he’s in an unsustainable calorie deficit, and his muscles will not receive enough energy to recover and improve. In this state, continuing to push would be non-functional overreaching.
Last but not least.
Person C recently finished eight weeks of heavy training, 6 to 7 days a week, and is feeling exhausted but is determined to keep training. Despite his training, he’s starting to feel slower, weaker, and out of breath during activities he used to breeze through. It’s week 9, and with a big climb in two weeks, he is determined to keep training hard and muscle through this slump. Should person C:
A. Climb hard and keep pushing
B. Do light recovery training, and hope that he bounces back in a couple of days
C. Rest completely
Answer: C. In this case, there can be no debate. Person C needs to focus on the fundamentals of how to recover from overtraining and get immediate rest. He’s not just tired. He’s seeing the classic signs of overtraining (loss in performance despite training). If he continues to train at this volume and intensity, he may cause irreparable harm.
The answers to these scenarios might seem pretty clear, but psychology plays a major role in overtraining. If your motivation in life is to watch movies all day on the couch, you will not enter a state of overtraining, but alpine endurance athletes are generally highly motivated to train very hard. This is born out of a need to perform at a high level in a dynamic environment and out of a passion for outdoor spaces. But without a training plan, this motivation can cause athletes to push themselves beyond their physiological limits for years.
LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF OVERTRAINING
What makes how we recover from overtraining so challenging to manage is that it’s based on maladaptations in our physiology. Positive adaptations to exercise are increases in muscle size and strength, better blood flow, and oxygenation of muscles, all of which are designed to help your body function better under the demands you place on it. Maladaptations refer to changes in your body that inhibit your performance and physical abilities. In the case of overtraining, it is currently believed that these develop to protect your body from your own training.
We know that chronic non-functional overreaching will lead to overtraining, which can then lead to more advanced levels of overtraining syndrome. This progression is largely based on the severity of the maladaptations that have taken place in your body. Excessive training without adequate rest can create an unfavorable physical conditions in your body, leading your brain to prioritize its own survival and well-being.
Your brain does not care about your desire to climb at a higher grade or finish a trail run. It only cares about an uninterrupted flow of oxygenated blood and fuel. If your body senses that your actions might threaten this balance, it will slow you down against your will.
Depending on how overtrained you are, these maladaptations are potentially irreversible and currently have no known medical solution, highlighting how vital rest and planning are. Staying patient and finding the time for your body to recuperate can lead to years of improved athletic performance and breakthroughs, but it requires respect for the training process.
Overtraining syndrome can be a severe hurdle for any athlete and is far from fully understood. Still, properly planning your training and listening to your body makes it easily avoidable. Continue making intelligent decisions about your health, stress, and nutrition; you’ll happily train for years!
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON OVERTRAINING
What are the signs of overtraining?
The first signs of overtraining are usually chronic fatigue and a loss in performance despite continued training. Other signs may include an elevated heart rate, mood shifts, or a loss of appetite over several days or weeks.
How long does it take to recover from overtraining?
How long recovery from overtraining takes depends on A) how overtrained you are and B) how much rest you take to recover. If someone is moderately overtrained and takes complete rest for several weeks, they may fully recover. If someone is only lightly overtrained but ignores their symptoms and continues to exert themselves, it may take months. The more overtrained you are, the longer recovery will take, but complete rest is essential.
How much training is too much?
What qualifies as too much training varies from person to person and even changes based on activity. Many professional weightlifters would consider several 3-5 mile runs a week as too much aerobic load because they don’t focus on endurance training.
A good rule of thumb for determining training load is the 10% rule. As you progress week to week, don’t increase the quantity or intensity of your training by more than 10% at a time. This will allow you to manage a healthy progression and avoid overtraining. This may vary somewhat in a professionally managed training plan, but you will still see the same trend of progressive overload.
Additionally, an average of 2 rest days per week is recommended for individuals training various systems (i.e., aerobic endurance, strength, power, etc.), which most climbers and uphill athletes do.